Thinspo and Gender Goals
Musing on two internet subcultures
This article was inspired in part by some conversations with Katherine Dee, who has some good thoughts on the subject of thinspo and pro-ana communities, as well as some recent posts by Helena @lacroicsz.
I was looking through Tiktok the other day and came across what I can only describe as high-production dysphoria fuel. In it, a beautiful gender fluid female teen (pronouns he/they/she, I will use she for now) with that fetching Zoomer-perm is standing and mouthing along to an Olivia Rodrigo song. She is lit with dramatic blue-pink lighting and her dewy eyes are filling with tears, her whole body quaking slightly with sorrow. She is bare-torso’d except for a nude bandeau. She mouths along the anguished growl of Olivia Rodrigo’s “Jealousy” - I’m so sick of myself / rather be, rather be anyone else. Over her breasts are superimposed flashing images of sculpted male chests. Images of beautiful, androgynous men’s faces appear above her. The tiktok has over a million likes.
My stomach twisted. The struggle with the body is on full display. If there was anything designed to twist the knife of dysphoria in deeper, it was this - the difference between the actual and desired body was made excruciatingly clear.
But there was also something undeniably compelling about the whole display. Here was dysphoria portrayed artistically, put to music, made tragic and beautiful. Even as it depicted suffering, it depicted it artfully, like a scene in a movie. The heroine/hero, even as she suffers, looks androgynous and winsome. The whole thing is cathartic and compelling.
The Seduction of Pro-Ana
When I was a younger teenager, I used to spend a little time on “pro-ana” (Pro-Anorexia) Tumblr. The images and the romance of the pro-ana blogs left a deep impression on me. The women were waifish and beautiful. I remember, in particular, a hypnotic obsession with particular traits. The thigh gap, the delicate protruding collar bone, the doll-like bony arm. The photos that people passed around were also often shot in a moody, desaturated color palette. It was dreamy.
The imagery of the pro-ana world had a simplistic appeal to it. Here, the diffuse, never-ending discomforts of daily life faded away. I could take in a steady fantasy of control, beauty, and disciplined agony. Here, young women engaged in fantasies about how good their lives would be once they were just thin enough. They conjured up the kind of dreamy, aesthetically pleasing scenarios you might see in a perfume commercial.
I remember bathing in the feeling of the pro-ana blogs and wishing to inhabit the world. Life in high school felt unlovely. Fluorescent lights, concrete-block walls, tedious classes. I wasn’t an exceptional social outcast, but I nonetheless suffered from the excruciating self-consciousness, self-doubt, and shyness that all teenagers are tormented with. But while reading these blogs, I could fantasize that I could cross over into this dreamy world, float through like a lovely model, graceful and unaffected, if I just reached some mystical level of thinness.
I wasn’t a teenage anorexic. I lacked the twisted resolve or incipient madness to truly restrict myself, and any day I did so much as skip lunch, I ended up binging on spoonfuls of peanut butter, feeling deep shame, that next night. But I enjoyed checking into the fantasy.
The appeal of the agony of change, the romance of self-hate
The gender dysphoria tiktok had a similar emotional tone to the pro-ana blogs I used to read when I was 15. The particularities are different, but the basic components are the same. Aestheticized self-hatred, beautiful suffering, a public display of deep unhappiness, set to music.
The moodiness and despair is laid out in a way that makes it pleasurable to wallow in. It says: we’re suffering, but it’s in pursuit of something beautiful. I will convert my pain to control.
After coming across the TikTok and reminiscing about my past experiences with Pro-Ana and gender dysphoric internet culture, I came across this article called The Six Seductions of Anorexia, by Emily Troscianko. In it, she writes about how anorexia provides certain psychological comforts, including making you feel special and providing a “partial suicide” where you can annihilate the parts of yourself you hate while continuing to live.
I appreciated this because it put something into sharp perspective - the seductiveness of the obsession with changing the body. When I “realized I was trans”, I had been wallowing in a miserable, self-hating depression for some time. But then, it was like a path was clear in front of me. I had the steps to be happy again. Sure, it would be brutal. But I was up for it. To distance myself from my disgust with my wretched female self, I was willing to spill some blood and make some sacrifices.
There’s a relief to take formless misery and sharpen it into a laser pointing at a hated body part. At least then we know what to target, what to change. Pro-anorexic Tumblr lionizes certain body parts. So did pro-trans Tumblr. The thigh gap - or the flat, male chest. The bony ribcage - or the straight, masculine hips. If I only dabbled in the pro-ana world, I fully immersed myself in this one.
Self Hate And The Dream of Better Life Through a Better Body
If you scroll through Tumblr, that fertile blue Pandora’s box from whence all our troubles began, you can find a lot of pro-ana stuff. You can also find a lot of material written by young trans men. You’ll find things like fundraisers for surgery, #genderenvy posts depicting the ideal look that the user wants to inhabit, text posts about gender dysphoria, and pictures of trans men with thousands of notes.
Both trans and anorexic communities indulge in rumination about the desired body states.
Some of it is hopeful and dreamy:
“inspiration: in a year I will be skinny. I will look good in everything. I will wear oversized sweaters and look adorable instead of fat.”
“Why I want top surgery: To be shirtless in public. To look good in a t-shirt. To not have to bind. To be able to hug closer.”
Some of them are roiling with self-hate:
“I’m so fucking disgusting, I’m so fat, I can’t believe I ate.”
“My dysphoria is like a gaping hole between my legs, like I’ve been ripped apart.”
The violent, visceral discomfort with the body contrasts with the pastel-colored images of the ideal, transformed body. There is a salvation of the body, and it can be saved, but only through transformation.
There’s also posts under the “FTM thinspo” tag that combine both genres.
“I need the thin thighs that cis boys get naturally. I want to wear oversized sweaters and look perfect. I want to be the small, adorable man held tight by his strong, huge boyfriend.”
(These examples are all written by me as examples of these types of Tumblr posts, since lots of people make them and I didn’t want to put unwanted attention on one random blogger by screenshooting their post. If you are curious, you can find more examples of these on Tumblr yourself.)
I distinctly remember something I reblogged on Tumblr a long time ago. I wish I could find the exact post. It said something like: “Goal: In 5 years, my top surgery scars are faded, I’m in a cute apartment full of plants, I’m sitting under a comfy blanket listening to the rain, I’m content and happy.”
As I approach my 5th year anniversary of my surgery, I look back on this ruefully. My top surgery scars are faded. I am listening to the rain. Of course, the surgery plunged me into a brutal depression, and I regret it every day. I should have joined a different cult. At least then I’d still be able to breastfeed. But — we live and learn.
Imagery: Thinspo, Gender Envy
I talked about thinspo. On the trans corner of Tumblr, there’s a similar genre of post under tags like #genderenvy, #gendergoals, #malespo (this one is for male thinspo). These are the forms that young trans men want to look like. Some of these #gendergoals are more burly and masculine, but when it comes to Tumblr, there’s an overwhelming theme (As @lacroiscz on twitter pointed out):
More often than not, for young teen trans and nonbinary people, the ideal form is skinny, androgynous men. A lot of people wanted to look like Harry Styles, or Gerard Way, or an anime drawing of a wizard. This is especially true for the many blogs run by trans men with eating disorders.
A lot of the “#malespo” imagery is almost identical in tone and imagery to the female thinspo. Desaturated, bony, pale people in skinny jeans looking gloomy and romantic and tragic. The pro-ana ideal is a beautiful, waifish female figure, the Tumblr trans community often idolizes beautiful, waifish men. If you squint just a bit as you scroll, they start to blend together into a parade of indistinguishable doll-like slender bodies.
The anxiety over being “really trans” and “really anorexic” is similar. I think people in both communities are often struggling with the idea that people who go farther and change their bodies more severely are more “valid.” What valid means is up for interpretation, but I always thought it represented an intensity and purity of purpose and feeling. To be a real anorexic is to starve yourself brutally. To be a real trans person is to go under the knife, or at least do hormones. You feel bad? Do something about it.
Don’t get me wrong, people pass around posts like “nonbinary people who don’t plan to get surgery are valid.” But the fact those posts even needed to exist betrays the underlying anxiety that some people are more real.
I mean, who feels more like a true anorexic- the person who reblogs skinny women in Tennis Skirts, or the person who starves herself down to a skeleton? Who seems “more trans” - the person who tepidly asserts she/they pronouns without a hint of gender nonconformity, or the person going under the knife to scrape away the female secondary sex characteristics?
To be clear. I’m not saying that these things are good. I’m just saying they signify some hardcore commitment to the belief system.
I want to show you that I’ve been suffering horribly, and that I’m strong enough to go through the suffering and master myself. I hate how things are now, but I have a beautiful vision for how things will be once I master myself and my body.
The All-Consuming Quest
In The Six Seductions of Anorexia, Emily Troscianko says that one thing that makes anorexia so appealing is that is acts as a “Rosetta Stone: Giving you readymade meaning.”
This was kind of my experience of transition. In a time when I was floundering, depressed, and had no path forward, it gave me one. That was like a liferaft being thrown to me in my personal little ocean of angst.
In the bios of pro-ana people, you often see something like this:
H: 5’3 SW: 150 CW: 130 GW1: 120 ✅ GW2: 110 UGW: 95
This stands for height, Starting Weight, Current Weight, Goal Weight One, Goal Weight Two, Ultimate Goal Weight. Sometimes people use check marks to indicate they have reached one of their goals. There’s an inexorable march towards the Ultimate Goal Weight. Maybe some of the earlier GW’s are checked off, to indicate the progress that has been made towards the Ultimate Goal.
This echoes a common format of the the bios of trans people, you often see transition dates laid out, checked off like so:
Ollie, 23, he/him. T-date 4/28/17, Top surgery 9/29/17, Hysto 3/1/18.
There’s a series of steps, a series of goals. They are legible and tangible. You move through them, celebrating each step that takes you closer. Everything else falls away. You’re on the right path.
I remember talking to a detransitioned friend of mine who used to go to a trans support group. She said “There were trans men there who had been transitioning for a long time, and every meeting, they would still say ‘I’ve been on T for 4 years, 8 months, and 15 days.’ Like they were still counting down the days even then. Then I started to realize that you’re never finished, you can never just stop thinking about it.”
The End of The Dream
The dreamy fantasies of the internet can only be imperfectly manifested into the world. No matter how skinny you get, life will still contain humiliations, discomforts, and disappointments. There is no Ultimate Goal Weight after which your life shifts into a fashion-shoot styled dream.
As Emily Troscianko says, “All of anorexia’s solutions come with expiry dates. The hunger high tends to degenerate into chronic gnawing unpleasantness. The depression embeds itself to make life feel nearly unbearable…The specialness reveals itself as nothing more than the winning of a competition whose prize was misery.” Once the honeymoon phase is over, the body starts to break down, and death is a possibility.
The end of my transition felt similar. The hope and excitement began to dissipate. I realized that whatever peace and wellbeing I thought was coming, wasn’t happening. The asymptotic and ever-more-taxing quest to become a man was not giving me the emotional wellbeing and sense of wholeness that I thought it would. The romance of transition had its own expiry date for me as well. You can read about that in my other writing.
I know many people don’t feel the same way about transition. You should read their stories, too. My main point is that there’s a lot of overlap in the kinds of ideation and obsession that take place in the online communities around anorexia and transition. In the realm of the online, we can curate a vision of the type of person we would rather be. How far we’re willing to go to achieve that ideal - and how gratifying it will really be if we do - is another question entirely.
If you want more reading on Tumblr, check out this article by Helena (you can also find her on twitter) and Default Friend’s entire journalistic project.
I just found this article after a random treasure trail on the internet and found it so unbelievably striking I feel I have to comment and commend you. I was born in 1989 and grew up totally romanticising self harm/anorexic/generally tragic self hatred type stuff on the internet (mostly livejournal, in my case). The path it sucked me down was self harm, so I too am left with scars from a period of teenage self hatred that feels so far away from what has come to matter to me today. Seems scary how much appeal this kind of despair holds for young females in particular across at least the past couple of decades- really interesting to hear you talk about the same kind of themes in relation to gender. You are a brilliant writer, thank you for such important insights.
impressive. the anime waif ideal (male or female--- the heroin chic fashion mag brigade of 15 years ago). the overlap with pro-ana culture, it's all right there but it takes someone to notice it and you did. so much of it comes down to rejection of adulthood...adult bodies, responsibilities, compromises. Body schizophrenia. Puberty blockers as a stop-time machine and anti-time machine. And yeah you can make compelling art out of those ideas. your own body as the canvas is the new thing. the overlap between artistic, avant garde body mod and trans isn't mentioned enough. Radical transhumanist daydreams are in the mix too. and what about the outsourcing of self-harm and cutting to medical professionals? You're onto something very important here. keep on.